Why the Patriots have the best short-pass game in the NFL

Mike Renner's "Teaching Tape" series takes on the short passing game of the Patriots, one of the league's toughest-to-stop attacks.

| 4 months ago
(AP Photo/Brad Penner)

(AP Photo/Brad Penner)

Why the Patriots have the best short-pass game in the NFL

[Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment in Senior Analyst Mike Renner’s “Teaching Tape” article series, which takes a look at the best positional units across the NFL.]

Work smarter not harder. It’s a cheesy self-help slogan I’m sure you’ve heard ad nauseam. It also happens to be the key to New England quarterback Tom Brady’s continued success. Whether it’s been a conscious or subconscious decision on his part in his advanced age, Brady has been trending toward shorter, quicker throws over the last five seasons.

Year Average Time Before Attempt Average Depth of Target
2011 2.47 8.6
2012 2.42 9.1
2013 2.39 8.9
2014 2.34 8.2
2015 2.26 8.3

Why do all the work – and take all the hits – when you have young talented playmakers who’ll do that for you? This is the Patriots offense in its current incarnation. Loaded with skill players that can create separation underneath, Brady is feeding them as quickly as he can and the offense is playing at as high a level as it has since 2007. If you want to install a quick passing game into your offense, New England is a no brainer to provide the Teaching Tape.

The Patriots hoarding of slot receivers has become a joke of sorts throughout the NFL, but when you look at the results, it’s Bill Belichick who’s laughing. On passes thrown within 2.2 seconds of the snap a year ago that weren’t screens (40.9 percent of attempts league-wide), Brady led all quarterbacks in completions (226), attempts (332), and yards (2,407 — first in the league by more than 500) while he was second in touchdowns (20) and only threw three picks. He did all that while still maintaining the seventh-best yards per attempt on those throws in the NFL (7.25). The statistics are mind-boggling.

So how do they do it? By playing matchups. 2.2 seconds isn’t enough to scan the whole field and decipher the intricacies of the defensive scheme. Much of Brady’s decision-making comes from the pre-snap alignment of the defense. Once he receives the ball, Brady does little more than read the defenders in a small area of the field to be able to get rid of it so swiftly. Below is the setup of the first play to start the second half in the Pats’ playoff game against the Chiefs.


The press on the outside and head-up alignments elsewhere with a safety in the middle of the field strongly suggests man coverage (the Chiefs are also a very man-heavy team). Brady sees that the coverage has also isolated Rob Gronkowski on Tyvon Branch. Advantage: New England. Brady resets the formation into what we see below to capitalize on this mismatch.


Gronk splits out even wider while James White is moved from the backfield to the slot, taking linebacker Derrick Johnson with him. The Chiefs don’t audible out, so the Pats run one of the most widely used route concepts in the NFL today, the slant-flat. Gronk’s slant route is great versus man coverage. The flat route is not a man-beater, but it does the job of removing the linebacker from underneath the slant. If they were to run the same routes from their previous alignments, Johnson would have flashed right through the passing window when Brady wanted to throw and it wouldn’t have been nearly as clean a window. Instead the result is an easy 18-yard completion as Brady puts on a masterclass in quarterbacking.


Against man coverage finding favorable matchups is easy, but against zone it gets trickier as it’s less about the skill differential and more about formations. This is where scheming comes into play. Below is a crucial 3rd-and-4 in a two-minute drill against Houston, one of the top defenses in the league. New England has trips left, yet the Texans only have two defenders within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage in position to defend. It becomes little more than a version of basketball’s 3-on-2 fast break, where if they can space themselves correctly it should be an easy conversion.


That’s exactly what they do, as Danny Amendola runs a spot route from the outside to find a hole in the zone. Keshawn Martin runs a flat route. And Gronk is little more than interference as he heads straight upfield taking the outside corner with him. The Texans don’t bring the blitz and instead drop into cover-4, meaning only one defender is responsible for the flat on that side. The problem is two routes are run to the flat, flooding the zone. The result is that slot cornerback Kareem Jackson is caught in a bind through no fault of his own, and little effort is needed from Brady for the first down.


3-on-2 situations like that don’t happen often though, and sometimes favorable looks against zone have to be manufactured. This brings us to the deadliest and most underrated aspect of the Patriots offense — their use of pre-snap motion. Time after time, opposing defenses don’t adjust their coverages correctly to the motion and leave gaping holes in their zones. It doesn’t even take much digging to find blatant examples this. Take, oh, I don’t know, the Patriots first offensive snap of the season.


Rob Gronkowski lines up in the backfield before motioning out to the slot, and the Pittsburgh defense acts like New England just invented the forward pass. The Pats have two receivers to the left with only one man covering them and the first down is inevitable.

This was far from an uncommon occurrence. Of all the insane stats Brady put up last season, his quick game splits with and without pre-snap motion might be the craziest of them all.

Passes Thrown Within 2.2 Seconds of Snap

Stat With Motion Without Motion
Completions 125 101
Attempts 170 162
Yards 1398 1009
Y/A 8.22 6.23
TD 13 7
QB Rating 118.2 91.8

Brady led the league in every single one of those statistical categories with motion – even yards per attempt. It’s as if the Patriots are playing a completely different game than everyone else, and it’s amazing to watch. It’s scary to think that with the addition of Martellus Bennett and return of Dion Lewis, New England’s offense could get even better — and quicker — in 2016.

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.

  • JudoPrince

    Brady, the ultimate system QB.

    • Jason


    • mcutomatic

      Moronic. What was Belichick’s HC record before Tom Brady? Tom Brady is the constant, Carson Palmer couldn’t hold Brady’s Jock strap.

    • Brian

      Clearly u have no understanding about football, offensive football, or the qb position.

    • crosseyedlemon

      Brady is 194-60 as a starter, Palmer 84-79. Maybe that represents equal success in the Judo world, but in the NFL it’s not even close.

  • Jason

    System Quarterback is accurate.

  • Jason

    Brady could have never played in Tom Coughlin/Kevin Gilbride’s pro-style, vertical run-and-shoot offense. He requires a dink-and-dunk system due to his limited passing skill set. He can’t throw with zip or consistency outside the hash marks.

    System QB.

    • john doe

      did you watch football in 2007? He did pretty well with that style of offense. The dink and dunk system also has to do with his receivers’ skillsets

      • Jason

        1. Randy Moss is only the greatest deep threat WR of all time.

        2. Belichick PURPOSELY targets WRs with that skill set because he understands Brady’s limitations as a passer.

        • Jax Jaguar

          Uhh… what are Brady’s limitations as a passer?

          • Jason

            Inability to throw outside the hash marks with zip/velocity

          • Phil

            You have the numbers to prove this?

          • Nathan Zeldafan Swift

            Actually, during the recent AFC championship game, he was slinging deep balls perfectly to White, which was their deep threat due to injuries, and had white had better hands, he would have snagged one of those passes for a touchdown. Brady can throw the deep ball, but doesn’t, as there’s no point to go deep when you can save time, and still get a huge play from your playmakers by targeting 15- 25 yards deep instead of 40+. It’s not like they have anyone on their team that can burn cornerbacks deep anyways.

          • Kenny Pendleton

            If you watch any games during the last half of the 2014 season all the way through to the super bowl you will see that he was throwing bullets! Mostly every ball had your “zip”.

        • Brian

          U CLEARLY do not have any type of understanding about offensive football & the fact that u think Tom Brady is a system qb really leads me to believe u know nothing about football other than what u watch on TV or find on the Internet. Tom Brady is probably the greatest qb ever to play. 2nd best ever at worst. Should we call Joe Montana a system qb bc he played in Walsh’s revolutionary west coast offense & was light years ahead of its time????? I just can’t even believe your ignorance!!!! If u don’t like brady so be it. Who cares. But what a completely moronic thing to say!!!! I mean that’s like saying Peyton Manning was only good bc he had at least 1, but mostly 2 elite wrs every single year of his career. Mj was only good bc of Phil jackson lmao. There’s so much more to this as well. Belichick is probably the greatest football coach ever to walk the earth. He’s also one of the coldest coaches ever as nostalgia or loyalty is not a thing to him when speaking in terms of his roster. So what u are saying is he elects to select slot guys & go wit a short passing game bc it’s what is best for brady? He does it bc it’s most efficient & best for the team. The more logical explanation is that why not go with slot wrs that can be had late in the draft or undrafted while maintaining a highly efficient offense that annual ranks in the top 3 while saving top draft capital for other positions. As well as the fact that slot wrs don’t cost near as much as true 1s. If brady was truly a system qb every team would do what the pats do.

          • Brian

            And the pats have essentially changed their offensive system multiple times in Brady’s career. I’m sure the verbiage is consistent, but even from week to week their offense morphs. I guess brady is a system qb in the fact that he runs multiple systems.

          • Mark Doyle

            AT one point in Montana’s career he was hurt, Steve Young was hurt and their third string QB was the top rated QB. There was a lot of system going on in SF. They were the top 3 at the same time. It might have been the receivers. Randy Moss made Daunte Culppepper look good and Tom Brady look great.

          • Brian

            First of all, I think a motivated randy moss in his prime was the greatest wr ever. However brady had moss for 2 & a quarter seasons. That’s it. Had him in 07, brady was injured all of 08, had him in 09 & moss was traded early in 2010. Brady is the WORST example of a qbs weapons making his career. Secondly, u aren’t going to find a bigger Sf fan than myself & I’ll be the 1st to tell u that Walsh’s system was way ahead of its time & it dominated the nfl. Yet there’s no way Sf wins 4 super bowls in the 80s without Montana. And a Sf offense analogy isn’t even valid as it didn’t morph but stayed true. NE runs the most multiple offense in maybe league history in terms of what their focus is. I can’t remember a team that ran power running, short play action, deep play action, spread, double tight end, 3 wr, etc as the focal point of their offense. Lots of teams do these things but I can’t remember a single qb to have ever ran them all & been elite at every one of them.

    • mcutomatic

      Considering the term System QB comes from run and shoot college QB’s that couldn’t translate to the NFL, this comment is hilarious as it is inaccurate.

      • Jason

        I said “PRO-STYLE run-and-shoot offense”. It was a combination of Tom Coughlin (run-first, Smashmouth) and Kevin Gilbride (vertical passing run-and-shoot).

        • Jason

          And Tom Brady is an NFL System QB.

          • mcutomatic

            False. Using the term system QB shows a lack of understanding on it’s own. The run a and shoot offense also is not complicated, nor does it take a strong arm. You have no clue what you are talking about.

        • mcutomatic

          The run and shoot is not complicated at all.. as opposed to the Patriots offensive system. In fact the run and shoot is famously installed by struggling offenses/franchises/college programs. The run and shoot also doesn’t require a strong arm, so I’m really not sure what the F you are talking about. Maybe you could elaborate, but I doubt it.

    • CP72

      Must be one hell of a system….

    • MyPetSlug

      Sure, but when what the Patriots do is so much more effective than “Tom Coughlin/Kevin Gilbride’s pro-style, vertical run-and-shoot offense”, why would he want to? You comment totally misses the point.

      A better comment would be, Eli Manning could never play in Bill Bellichick’s short passing game offense. He requires a vertical run and shoot system due to his limited football IQ. He can’t read pre-snap defenses and motion into the correct matchups.

      • Jason

        He’s been playing in McAdoo’s short passing game offense for the last 2 years and has succeeded, and is still ascending.

        Try again.

        • MyPetSlug

          First, we must have different definitions of “success”. PFF rates Brady as one of the best QBs in the league last year and the Patriots passing offense was great again, despite having some of the worst pass protection in the league. Eli, on the other hand…https://www.profootballfocus.com/pro-dip-in-eli-mannings-play-corresponds-with-struggles-versus-pressure/. The article mentions he’s rated the 26th QB in the league. So, no, he’s not running the short passing game anywhere near as well as Brady.

          Second, your comment was really about the the vertical passing game and it was a knock on Brady that he allegedly couldn’t do it. As if vertical passing is the goal of itself and not just a means to score points. My point, which still stands, was to flip around what you said, instead of knocking Brady for not being effective at some arbitrary passing scheme, why not knock Eli, as an example, who played in the arbitrary system you brought up, for not being effective at the, clearly better, system Brady plays in.

          • Jason

            Wow, PFF ranked Eli 26th, so they must be right.

            Great logic there. Because PFF’s QB grading is 100% spot on.


          • Jason

            Brady has some of the worst pass-protection in the league.

            You do realize Eli Manning was playing with rookie Ereck Flowers and Marshall Newhouse as his 2 starting OTs, right? They were literally the worst OT tandem in football.

      • Jason

        See article:


        Money quote from Greg Cosell: “You’d even have to say that the offense, as it’s drawn up on a chalkboard, is run more purely by Manning than it is by Aaron Rodgers. They’re different quarterbacks. Rodgers is a second reaction player. He’ll make plays late in the down. Manning is more of a rhythm thrower in this offense, getting the ball out fast right after the snap.”

        • MyPetSlug

          This article was also written October 16th 2015, aka, 5 weeks into the season. It mentions Eli has a 100.2 QB rating at the time. He finished with a 93.6. Let me know when Eli Manning has been running an offense (any offense) better than Aaron Rodgers (or Tom Brady) for at least a full year.

          • Jason

            Eli was better than Rodgers in 2015. More yards, more TDs, less sacks, higher completion %

      • Jason

        McAdoo’s short pass offense fits Eli perfectly. Eli has proven he can succeed in 2 polar opposite schemes. From the article above, “A big part of his success is that the offense scheme that fits him like a glove.”

    • Kershley Charles

      I guess you just missed that entire 2007 season huh? Brady was throwing pinpoint bombs damn near every game because he actually had a deep threat.

  • mcutomatic

    Every team has an offensive “system” and there is not probably not much more than a handful of recognized offensive systems currently being used in the NFL.
    The Patriots offensive “system” would be the Erhardt-Perkins offense and the offense has been described as “philosophically neutral”. They game plan for teams individually. They are a power running team against the colts, and don’t bother running the ball against the jets and ravens. The patriots take what you give them. They will change their scheme from year to year, week to week, and quarter to quarter dependent upon what the other team gives them, and what personnell they are working with.

    Brady has said he overthrows deep balls to avoid interceptions. When he throws intermediate passes to Gronk, Edelmen, RBs, he throws low with the nose of the ball pointed down.

    I’ve seen Brady make every throw on the field. People who say he is a system QB are morons. He is the constant.Everything else around him has changed throughtout his career. What was BB’s record before Brady?

    • Jason

      It’s the Bill Belichick system that makes Brady.

      • mcutomatic

        False. There is no Belichick system. The patriots offense is characterized by multiple offensive looks, which is what makes them so difficult to defend..

        Brady would have had success anywhere in any system. He had success at Michigan. Where was Belichick then? Belichick on the other hand was sub .500 as a HC before Brady. He’s at about 77% win percentage with Brady.

        I’m assuming you are not elaborating any more on your point because you simply can’t. You’re talking out of you ass. One of the more common excuses by Brady haters is he’s a “system QB.”. Just one of the many excuses losers will roll out.

        The Pats are constantly changing their offensive approach. Here’s a link to a pretty basic article on it:


      • Lee Fox

        The only time he has stretched the field was with Moss. Pre Moss and after they have been a VERY conservative matchup team. Brady is the epitome of a ” System QB

  • Brady is the GOAT

    If Brady is a system QB, why Patriots didn’t put other QB less paid in is place? You guys are a joke. He just wins, he knows more than anyone how to win.

    • DR

      Well, after 3 regular season games, who is right? Rookies can’t learn a complex system quickly unless they did it in college. But they can learn a simple system over the summer, watching film, & 4 preseason games that factors in their strengths.

  • crosseyedlemon

    This “teaching tape” series is probably the best thing on the website and once again Mike has done a great job with the presentation. Along with the categories mentioned, I suspect the Patriots also led the league in illegal pick plays by receivers.

  • Mark Doyle

    I still like the long balls. How bout an article on how to stop NE.

  • ForgiveTremor .

    Pick plays.

  • ForgiveTremor .